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Thursday, 16 June 2011

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Literacy India

I came from Chicago, Illinois in the United States to visit Literacy India. Chicago is one of the US's largest cities with a population of about 2.7 million. If you picture the USA, it's in the middle of the country and about a 12 hour drive south of Canada. It's famous deep dish pizza, blues music, and two baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox, which create a friendly sporting competition. The city is located alongside one of the world's largest fresh water lakes, Lake Michigan, and is known for it's nice summers (about 30*C) and infamously cold winters (-10*C). The city's horizon is crammed with skyscrapers with the tallest, the former Sears Tower, reaching 527 meters. Prior to traveling, I lived in one of the city's neighborhoods about 10 kilometers away from the city center with tree lined streets, a local butcher, a bakery down the street, and local restaurants close by.

Most recently, I left my job in non-profit at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as a fundraising campaign manager to start business school at Chicago's DePaul University in September. With the time I have off before school starts, I'm taking the opportunity to travel around the world. My interest is in social enterprise and that's why Literacy India was such an honor to visit. From my perspective, it's important to see an organization in person to get a better feel for it. A website and marketing materials only show so much. There's value in meeting the people involved and witnessing first hand how an organization works. I also believe that business should have a positive impact on the community. However, during my visit I learned much more than the Indha project, which I was initially drawn to. Literacy India's education program breaks from tradition to achieve high levels of success. Heath centers in various towns provide care to all. And there are wonderful programs focusing on kids who have developed addictions and other issues - getting them off the streets and into school for a future.

That said, I was particularly impressed by what I saw at Literacy India. I met Kaushik in the morning and we headed first to the Palam Vihar school and headquarters. The tour was quite impressive. I met a few of the teachers and individuals involved in the program and peered into the various classrooms. Generous computer donations from Dell provides an opportunity to teach important technology skills to the students. Literacy India even has a software education program to use at its various schools here and around India. Vocational classrooms teach useful skills such as sewing. A large drama room promotes expression and creative learning. I was impressed to hear about the guest teachers and volunteers that come by to lend their expertise: actors, judo experts, even a spanish guitarist. From my personal experience, it's crucial to find ways for volunteers to get involved efficiently and to identify how each can apply his or her skills best. Leveraging those two things creates an even better organization. Customizing learning to different abilities and making it fun is key to engage students. The goal is for Literacy India students to pursue further education and have sponsorships cover the costs. Again, I was very impressed by what's happening at the school.

Next, we turned out attention to Indha, the social enterprise portion of Literacy India. At the paper making facility, I met the head manager and various women hard at work. They created the pulp, squeezed out the water, and ironed the sheets flat - ready to be turned into books and other Indha projects. Literacy India has a goal to be completely sustainable. They're making strides by producing their own books through Indha. Next door to the paper recycling is where girls assemble the books, jewelry boxes, picture frames, and cases. They glue beautiful fabrics on to the recycled paper and cardboard. The result is a gorgeous finished product ready to be sold.

After seeing the paper production, it was time to drive to the neighboring town of Daulatabad to meet the women involved in producing some of Indha's bags. Their head designer, who has been with the organization for a large part of its existence, introduced me to the women artists themselves. They showed me their machines, the fabric they use, and examples of items they've just completed. True to their focus on self-sustainability, they even use textiles created at the Indha center in Rajastan on some of the bags. One woman was even kind enough to invite me and the women to her home for some chai. These women have incredible talent. Through Literacy India, they are also being empowered. Each has a say in the pricing, design, and other business decisions. If a product does not sell as well compared to other Indha centers in India, they can review their strategy and adjust. There are workshops to improve skills, they work with each other to make decisions, receive an income, and learn a skill that they can later use to create their own small business in town. Sales from each item goes back to the center and artist that produced it and Literacy India sinks the costs of the main expenses (sewing machines, workshops, fabric, etc). As we left and walked down the street towards the car, we saw one former Indha member who has since opened up a tailoring, sewing shop in Daulatabad out of a small room off of her home. The quick glimpse I had of her work was incredible.

Our final stop was back at the headquarters in Palam Vihar to see the gift shop displaying all Indha products throughout India. I was overwhelmed by so many beautiful options: table runners, jewelry boxes, traditional masks from the north, bags, books, boxes, office paper, card holders, and more. Indha products are also sold at a fair trade shop in town as well as at a few expos and through an online eBay site. Looking forward, they are looking to increase global brand recognition and the number of shops carrying their products, with the ultimate goal to have a shop exclusively carrying Indha.

There are a few items Literacy India is successfully doing:

1) Teaching kids computer and useful vocational skills. This will give the students a huge advantage to establish a skill set and secure a job. Indha also builds skills and confidence, empowering the women involved.

2) Centers focus on local traditions, craft, challenges, and opportunities unique to that community.

3) Women involved in Indha have a voice. Their impute on pricing, design, strategy matters.

4) Job creation. Indha immediately creates jobs for women and the Literacy India school will help students land a future job.

5) The people involved in Literacy India who I met are passionate, dedicated, hard working, and have been involved for 5 years or more. That says a tremendous amount about the organization that is rapidly growing.

6) Trying an experimental approach. Literacy India tries a different way to education and creating a product. Both are much more dynamic and have huge potential for the students and women.

Additionally, there are a few opportunities that Literacy India might want to take a look at. This, of course, depends on the organization's goals and abilities. Below is merely a few suggestions. Working in non-profit, I understand the overwhelming amount of work in the midst of being understaffed and underfunded.

1) There are resources where people look to apply their skills over short or long time periods. This might be an interesting way to find talented people who would be great to have involved as volunteers. (Lonely Planet has a volunteerism book, etc)

2) Social Media. Find social enterprise organizations online and see what they're doing. Increase the presence of Literacy India on Facebook, blogs, and other online sources. Have volunteers who have visited spread LI to their own networks to increase awareness. Broadcast successes and new products, etc. Increase the amount of people who "like" and actively comment about LI on Facebook.

3) Look for fair trade / social enterprise-minded stores in the US to carry Indha products.

4) Re-engage students who have gone through Literacy India and see if they might best stay involved.

5) Look for a large quantity of small donors. From personal experience, during the economic slowdown in the US, securing big donors became more difficult. Having a larger base of smaller donors was the best method.

6) Introduce each story behind the Indha artists associated with the various products. Use a photo and bio. It's done for students in school on the website, but having write-ups included with each Indha purchase would connect the buyer even more. People want to help good causes. They want to see a direct way that their purchase has improved the world.

7) Sell Indha products at high end hotel gift shops. They are great gifts for tourists - plus, a good way to promote Literacy India and spread awareness. There might even be people interested in visiting the store in Palam Vihar with a brief tour for a different experience in India. Many experienced tourists are looking for fresh, different things to do in India. They want to see a way India is changing for the better. International tourism could create a connection to more potential donors.

8) See if the western corporations popping up in Gurgaon would be interested in sponsoring / getting involved. Many big companies have corporate social responsibility departments. That might be a good way for companies to support a good cause in their backyard.

That said, Literacy India's future is looking bright. I'll be interested to see how it continues to expand and move towards total sustainability. Right now, it appears to have the right people involved in the right capacity. As I mentioned, this is crucial for success. It's obvious that the individuals I met at Literacy india have the passion, motivation, dedication, and dynamic backgrounds to keep an organization like this growing as it has over the past 14 years. Thanks to all at Literacy India for their generous and thorough visit. It was a highlight during my trip to India.

By K A T E M O O N

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